Thursday, January 6, 2011

Men in Black

Space for Lease, 2008

Thinking about our old house on the house on the dune the other day triggered another memory I’d stashed far away.

As I mentioned before, the house was a duplex. My mother had built it with the expectation that we would live in one side and the income from the rental unit would pay the mortgage and provide her with a little supplemental income in her old age.

It didn’t exactly work out that way. The rental unit did well. My mother sold the place not long after I went off to college, though, and the proceeds cushioned her for many years thereafter.

We didn’t have many problems with tenants. In the fall of 1966, though, the rental unit was taken for the winter by a young couple named Umphlett. The husband had just gotten out of the Army and was working as a handyman at an old beach hotel nearby. The wife still had a year or two left on her military service.

Things went well for several months. Then the rent started being paid a little later and later each month. The husband disappeared. Mrs. Umphlett explained that her husband was away visiting family. Friends of the couple and moved in with their mongrel dog, ostensibly to help with the rent.

Eventually, the rent stopped being paid at all. We didn’t see either of the Umphletts. The friends disappeared.

My mother tried to track the couple down. The owner of the hotel where the husband worked told her Umphlett had been fired some weeks before. We learned that we might have some recourse by contacting the adjutant general at the base where the wife was stationed. But before that happened, the following took place.

It was a Friday night. I was downstairs watching The Twilight Zone. I went to the kitchen to get a snack. Movement outside the window caught my eye. When I looked closer I realized the house was surrounded by men in black suits and trench coats. They also had guns in their hands.

There was a knock at the front door, actually more of a pound. I opened the door and found a federal agent holding a badge up to the storm door. He demanded to know who I was and where the Umphletts were. I was scared, but assured him that he was knocking on the wrong door.

A brief discussion followed, during which we learned that 1) the Umphletts weren’t really named Umphlett, 2) they weren’t married and 3) both were deserters from the U.S. Army.

We provided a key to the rental unit and found that the couple had left without taking any of their possessions, and further left the dog alone and untended. The agents inspected the place, took the dog and left.

It seems ours wasn’t the first wrong door they’d knocked on. They’d started their raid by pounding on the door of an alcoholic divorcée who lived in the next house up the street from us. Long into her cups by that time of night, Mrs. H. was upstairs in her den dozing in front of the television. She didn’t hear the pounding on her door initially, but finally went to a front window to see what was making the noise. “Federal Agents, Mam! Open up!” they yelled at her. Not at all impressed, she responded, “And I’m the f---ing Queen of England!” and slammed the window shut.

The adjutant general at the local base informed us that in addition to being unable to compel the deserting couple to make good on the rent, the law required us to hold onto their possessions for a year.

It fell to me to clean the apartment out. This all happened during the Vietnam War. The personal belongings I moved from the apartment to a locked shed out in the back yard included firearms and photographs that were disturbing in their crudity and atrociousness. More than forty years later my mind has not yet erased the memory of some of those images. Let’s just say that when photographs of the My Lai massacre were made public the following year I had seen enough in Mr. Umphlett’s photo collection to not be surprised by them.

We never did hear what happened to the Umphletts. Rumor had it that both were eventually apprehended and thrown in the brig. We also heard that the man had been released after ten or eleven months. We don’t know anything for sure. But I do remember that shortly before the year was up, someone broke into the shed behind our house and stole a bunch of those incriminating photographs.


  1. What a story! Their name even fits. I never knew about having to hold onto their belongings for a year--that seems hard on the landlord in cases like this! Wonder whatever became of the Umphletts.

  2. Fascinating story. High intrigue with no ending.

  3. Some of the guys I served with during the late 70s and early 80s, in places with "no US troop presence", liked to collect photos like that. This at the risk of getting into serious trouble for having taken them in the first place because we "were never there". All I ever wanted to do was forget some of the things I had to see and do.